On Christmas Eve, 2015, the Beatles back catalogue went live on streaming sites. Around the world, people hastily formulated and executed half-baked excuses to evade ‘family time’, find solitude in a darkened room, light a candle and curl into the foetal position while hitting ‘play’ on Rubber Soul on Spotify. Or so I would assume.
There was once a time when my listening habits were not under the influence of aggregation software, convenience, helpful yet slightly unnerving algorithms. My first experience with the Beatles – also my first memorable experience of music really, discounting my early experimental phase involving Lamb Chop the puppet’s The Song That Doesn’t End – was 23 years ago. For me, a significant portion of father-daughter time was spent listening to what I knew then only as the LP With The Apple On It in Dad’s cluttered record room next to the garage, the latter serving as a no man’s land for soundproofing purposes.
Everything about the record room delighted me: the refuge it provided from the world outside, the sheer number of LPs and CDs stowed away using the Organised Chaos Method, and even the smell that I would later come to identify as a bouquet of vinyl and dust. The paraphernalia of music can often be as comforting as the sound itself; years later I would find myself burrowing through the tightly-packed shelves and boxes of the Rough Trade shop under Slam City Skates in Covent Garden (RIP), seeking solace from the standard minutiae of teenage existence.
The record room was also the birthplace of dozens of mixtapes. Whenever watching the John Cusack character, Rob agonising over the production of a decent mixtape in High Fidelity, I’m reminded how it used to be done. Today, a flurry of mouse clicks and keyboard taps can create a playlist in minutes, or even seconds. If Nick Hornby’s Rob Fleming was brought into the 21st century, he would have something very disparaging to say about this, and I would be inclined to agree with him.
The ease at which one can pull together a reasonable playlist is in one sense wonderful. Yet it’s all a little too easy now; when the making of a mixtape was a more time-consuming endeavour and confined musos to a limited number of songs, you really thought about what should be included and in what order. Having to sit through the recording of songs from tape to tape or CD to tape in realtime encouraged meticulous playlist building.
You would also be incorporating songs from the radio on mixtapes as a matter of course. Another big evolution in music has been the move towards greater affordability – first found in illegal downloading through the likes of LimeWire and Kazaa, and then in legal streaming. Previously, if I wanted to feature a newly-released song that I didn’t own and couldn’t justify £3.99 for the single of, I would pray to the gods of Radio 1 and Xfm for it to be played soon, without too much inane banter impinging on the beginning and end of the song.
Buying compilation CDs was also a way of getting more bang for your buck. As a pre-teen, I shunned the likes of Mizz and Shout in favour of the Top of the Pops and Smash Hits mags, almost entirely to get hold of the free sampler CDs. This habit would continue but with more discerning reads: Rock Sound, Kerrang! and the NME. And I still sometimes navigate the chronology of bands and genres by means of old NOW That’s What I Call Music compilations. Sure, each tracklisting would be punctuated with musical land mines, but skipping past the Lighthouse Family and Janet Jackson to get to the likes of Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn and Catatonia’s Mulder and Scully – both shining examples of late ’90s guitar pop – was a relatively small inconvenience to bear. That was NOW… 39, my first.
Today, the name Now That’s What I Call Music is an oxymoron – all land mines, no gems. Maybe this is just me being overly forgiving of the music I grew up with and overly scathing of the new and auto-tuned. But hell, Selena Gomez, Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora, Carly Rae Something – none of these ladies have a patch on Alanis Morissette or Shirley Manson (frontwoman of Garbage). Who’s providing the soundtrack to over-egged, self-indulgent, female teen angst these days?
Music TV is another formerly reasonable source of music that has fallen from aural grace. MTV originally did exactly what it said on the tin. After school I would flick incessantly between the many music TV channels on Sky, creating a dizzying blend of dismissed songs and ads and much irritation to my parents. Hundreds of music videos made it on to VHS tapes. I worshiped directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry for their artistry; Jonze actually directed the first ever music video I saw, Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”, which was curiously included on a Windows 95 sampler CD. Microsoft was cool once.
Today, MTV is synonymous with reality TV. 16 and Pregnant is a sorry substitute for Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” video and, almost impressively, more depressing. Moreover, creativity in music video production now seems confined to elaborate costume design and increasingly sexualised motifs (thank you, Lady Gaga and co.). The wholesome days of Dave Grohl frolicking on a plane in various guises (“Learn to Fly”) are long gone.
This trip down musical memory lane might seem too sentimental; that’s not my intention. Nostalgia-tinged lamentations aside, some musical innovations have been hugely positive. The popularity of music mags has waned as the number of music blogs has mushroomed. YouTube has obliterated the frustrations of music channel flicking. Streaming services have widened access immensely and facilitated the discovery of new music in a big way. Music flows throughout my flat from a WiFi speaker I can control with my phone or laptop, like magic.
Yet there is something very special about those early experiences with vinyl, mixtapes and music videos. Could they be replicated in essence today with technologically-advanced equivalents? I’m not so sure. Again, I think back to the Beatles – specifically, the time my father turned off one of his speakers during “Paperback Writer” so that I could hear them singing the French nursery rhyme”Frère Jacques”. Like magic, only somehow better.